Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Quality of Friendship

I have been most fortunate to have a lifelong friend. Even now, 41 years on and with me living on the other side of the world, we are in near daily contact. This relationship is one of my greatest honors.

Marjorie and I could not be more dissimilar. She is a beautiful blonde, I am tall and dark (and pretty, not handsome!) she has been married her whole (adult) life and I've been divorced for just about that long. I'm a flighty dreamer and an adventurous risk taker. She is more grounded, although she also likes to take chances, occasionally. Her family history is relatively stable and mine is fragmented. Ours is a  relationship based as much on our differences as on our long history.

Much as I treasure my friendship with Marjorie, I don't know if it can compare to relationships in China.

My students come from diverse backgrounds of any income level. They meet for the first time upon arrival at school, when they receive their dorm assignments. In short order, they have to learn to live together, sometimes six to a room, and share one bathroom. They attend classes together, eat together and go out together.

If that were all there was, I would not be writing about this topic.

What is so remarkable about these relationships is that they run so deep and are all-encompassing. These kids don't live or act under duress: they develop genuine fondness for one another. It is quite common to see boys draping arms about a dorm-mate's shoulder, and girls holding on to one another – even while sitting in class; playing with each other's hair and making other overt shows of affection. Quite frequently a student might come to class wearing the clothes his/her friend wore last week. They seem to share everything. 

In my experience living in the west, I learned that college friendships can endure. Some college sweethearts get married and enjoy a lifelong romance. Fraternity/Sorority members in America enjoy a special bond forged by their pledge to their organization. What happens to those ties after graduation?

Mostly, they weaken and sometimes disappear altogether. What was it John Lennon  said? “Life is what happens while you're making other plans.” there is no doubt in my mind that sorority sisters are devoted to each other, even after graduation. However, real-world concerns take precedence over a pledge that was made barely into adulthood. Come reunion time, everyone is happy to gather and share fun memories. Some might see their breathren with a jaundiced eye: who got fat? Who is losing their hair? How many kids???

When Sam, now ten years out of university, and I went to Beijing to renew my passport, he called some of his college friends who have taken up residence there. They are busy and influential men. One of them heads the government International Liaison Office, preparing events for foreign dignitaries. It just so happened that the following week would see a major shindig and his office was busy scrambling for hotels and transportation for their venerated guests. The other is a professor at some prestigous university who was getting ready to embark on a year-long fellowship study in the states. Usually they do not have time to visit each other even  though they live in the same city, but they keep in contact by instant message. Sam is included the same way.

They immediately canceled all of their plans to treat us to dinner. Sam was a bit uncomfortable, in awe of their positions while he is but a lowly teacher in some third-rate, provincial university. Rather than lording their lofty life and accomplishements, the men delighted in pictures of Sam's family, he being the only one of the three who is married and a father. We thrilled at their exploits. We shared laughter and good food. There was no envy or mean-spiritedness at all.

Daisy and Martina, two teachers at our school, met in college. After graduation they moved to Wuhan together, lived together and, as their apartment was so small, slept in the same bed. Daisy has since married and now has a child but that doesn't stop those two friends from communing nearly daily. 

Some of my students from my first year here, 2 years graduated already, struck out all over the country to find their fortune. My dear Zhanny had been having a hard time. Upon hearing her troubles, Zhanny's constant companion in college, Dash – who lives in 10 hours away, rallied a few classmates and they all headed to Shanghai to cheer Zhanny up. Jackson, a particularly dear boy went back to South Africa after making sure his friend/class mate would be at least OK, if not well watched over.

I've never had the pleasure of witnessing such devotion.

Greeting my students back into the new year, I asked them what they did this summer. Quite a few said they traveled together and/or found jobs together. One recounted how she and a friend traveled to Shenzhen for work. After a month in a dismal factory, she decided she'd had enough. Unfortunately, all of her money got stolen! She borrowed some money from her friend to return to her family home.

I heard that story twice, in two separate classes. Wendy, the second teller, confirmed she had traveled and worked with Susannah, who had relayed the story the first time.

“Sure!” you say: “These are college students, still young, just stepping out into the big, bad world.” That is true even of Sam, only just marking his 10-year graduation anniversary. What about people who are older?

I read about a group of women who, for the past 47 years have made it a point to rendezvous every single year. Meeting was impossible during the hard times China endured in the late 60's – early 70's  but they never lost touch. And this, in a time when instant communication did not exist! By now, some of those women are grandmothers, some are widowed and some are enjoying retirement after a rewarding career. It is all the same to them. Perhaps, in their minds' eye and most likely in their hearts they are still the young women they were upon initial meeting. Thus, they celebrate.

For one short academic year I  attended Berlin American High School. That is where Marjorie and I met. Besides her, I was not well liked. In fact, I was tortured for being an outsider, and even worse:  for being French. With my barely intelligible English, I didn't have the verbal skills needed to defend myself or attempt to forge any friendships.

Imagine my surprise, years later, at discovering the Berlin Brats website, dedicated to alumni from that school! I don't know why, but I registered for membership. After the initial excitement I realized that the only person from that time who was in any way kind to me, I am still friends with. Therefore I had no need to subject myself to possible further abuse and/or rejection at the hands of classmates who weren't nice to me in the first place. However, I monitored that web page. Members enjoy gatherings. They travel to meetings. They stay in touch through the website and, no doubt through personal contact.

Knowing that: am I off the mark when I say the quality of friendships in China is richer, deeper than elsewhere?

Enjoying my chat with Dean Lisa after the freshmen graduation ceremony, I asked what her plans were for the upcoming National Holiday celebration. She said she and a few of her college classmates would travel together to Suizhou to enjoy the hot springs. Again I was felled by the longevity and depth of friendships in China. Lisa is more than 10 years my senior. Most of her peers have retired. Not to insult her, but it has to have been years since her college days.     

What makes these relationships in China endure?

I believe it is because of the very nature of their initial meeting. Take a bunch of strangers fresh from home – fresh from the fields, in some cases, and put them together intensively for 4 years. They will become adults together. They will discover themselves together, and learn from each other. They will assume the responsibility of their country's future together. They will rely on each other because their families couldn't possibly understand them the way their peers do. And those bonds, formed at the threshold of adulthood are those that endure.

Let's ask Cassie, a teacher at our school and Flora, her college room mate who now lives in the states. Geography cannot separate the two: they video chat almost daily. Flora needs her China connection and Cassie needs her best friend right now, seeing as she's been through a terrible time recently. Neither of them could vocalize the basis of their friendship but both aver: “I can't imagine life without her”.

I can relate to that. I wouldn't want to be in a Marjorie-less world.            

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